Friday, May 13, 2011

What's The Big Deal about Class Size?

There are some common issues that certain people have with teachers. I've heard, and read on the internet, about people who think teachers only complain about class size. For some reason, this is considered a selfish complaint. I always wonder why. I mean, I understand a bit. It does help me to be responsible for fewer human beings throughout my day. However, we're rarely complaining for our own benefit.

No, class size is a very real and very serious issue for student achievement. Currently, union agreement allows me to have up to 31 students before I can request additional pay. No one would need to worry about my requesting any additional pay because you could not pay me to be in charge of more than 31 children, even if classes only last 70 minutes.

Let's put you in the student's perspective first. There are 32 people in the room, including you and the teacher. You are reading a short story and writing a small analysis. You have a question. So do ten other kids. You raise your hand, but your teacher has to get Jimmy, Bobby, Sally, Molly, Ricky, Steven, Alex, Mary, Renee and Tommy first. When she gets to you, after climbing over the backpacks and legs and everything on the floor, you've forgotten your question. You've heard that other classes are doing something cool called Socratic Circles. Your teacher says you can't as the exercise isn't possible with such a large group and you really don't have room. You ask if you can pass out the papers. When you go to do so, you realize there are students in your class who you have never spoken to and don't even know their name.

This isn't made up. I've seen this happen in the classes I already have, the largest of which has 29 students.

How about the teacher's position?

You have a trimester schedule, so you have four classes a day. We'll be nice and say each class is as big as my largest, 29. That's 116 students total. You see them all every day. You have 30 desks (though I actually have 29 now that one broke). In second period, you have given your kids assigned seats, but Mike has learned to talk to his neighbor even though you specifically put him next to someone he wouldn't talk to. The only open seat is still next to Mike's new friend, so where are you going to move Mike without inconveniencing and "punishing" another student. Don't even think about getting more desks. You can barely fit thirty as it is with your bookshelves, teacher desk and required technology.

What about grading? You have 116 kids! If all of them write just five paragraphs for each paper, that's 580 paragraphs to read in a "timely" manner. Students will start asking you if you've read theirs yet and their grade before the end of the class when they turn it in. They'll start getting angry with you around 48 hours after they turned it in. If you make a worksheet, that's 116 worksheets to grade before the next day, or you'll get behind.

You'll find that it's February and there are students you've barely heard talk. You can't do certain exercises, like the previous mentioned Socratic Circles. You can't read certain books because you just don't have enough copies. You try to have conferences with students, but even making each conference last five minutes takes more than two class periods to speak with every student. And that's if you begin conferences when the bell rings and keep up your five minute conferences straight until the bell rings, to say nothing of the fact that five minutes is way to short to help any individual student.

Class size matters. That's why schools who can recruit advertise their low class sizes. However, in the schools that need it the most, students and teachers are expected to buck up and deal with enormous course loads. My ideal class size is less than twenty. You can do most activities, buying resources is less expensive and students get more one on one interaction with their teacher.

Yes, this will cost more money. However, aren't failures in education freakishly expensive as it is? Students who fail go on to be adults who fail and require a lot of tax payer money to help. Why not stop the problem before it starts and spend less money overall? Because lawmakers see the symptoms and treat those rather than the underlying issues.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I agree that class size is an enormous issue. In both of the districts where I've taught, the classrooms were built for 25 students. I once had 37 sixth graders in my self-contained class, and we were packed in about as tight as it could get. When I was a classroom teacher, I averaged about 31 students. One year, however, I had 26 kids, and that was the best year ever. I felt like I truly knew each student, and we all actually fit in the classroom!

    They say that having a caring teacher who connects to the students makes a gigantic difference in students' lives. I agree with that, but it is so much more difficult to have daily connections with so very many students.

    I teach ESL now, and we have between 30 and 50 students on our caseloads each year. I make it a point to get to know my students well, but I think about how different things would be if students got more individualized attention.

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